By Trena Winans, Director of Education & Outreach
Our culture seems to surround us constantly with anti-aging messages. I can’t even begin to count the number of products, programs and treatments I have seen trying to sell a new version of a youth elixir. Perhaps it is time to ask ourselves why we should want anything that tells us we are not ok as we are—today?
Look around at all the magazines, advertisements and grocery store aisles and you will find them telling us that we need to be sure not to “let ourselves go.” It is easy to see why so many of us feel we must hide our gray, cover our wrinkles, or go in for Botox or facelifts. While it is nice to feel like we look good, and many products may produce a measure of the desired effects, what really happens when we buy into our culture’s youthful ideal is that we project shame on who we are right now. Ashton Applewhite, author of “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism” states: “Trying to pass for younger is like a gay person trying to pass for straight or a person of color for white. These behaviors are rooted in shame over something that shouldn’t be shameful. And they give a pass to the underlying discrimination that makes them necessary.”
It is a pet peeve of mine when someone comes to me wanting to offer some program that promises it will help attendees to “stay young.” In fact, part of our problem with the pervasiveness of ageist messages today is that so many businesses see it as an opportunity to sell you something. If millions of people are made to feel shame about their aging face, body and brain, then it follows that those same people will be more willing to fork over larger and larger sums to stave off the signs of the passage of time.
Would we put up with this prejudice if it were any other grouping? Take a look at the birthday card aisle sometime and note how many of those cards poke fun at a person’s age. They use a tone we would never dream of using in regards to race, religion, or gender. As Todd Nelson, a psychology professor at California State University at Stanislaus, points out “Ha-ha-ha, too bad you’re Jewish’ … wouldn’t go over so well.”
Is it possible to turn the tide? There are signs of hope. More and more people seem to be becoming aware of the issue and are calling ageism out when they see it. Notoriously ageist industries like modeling and film are increasingly featuring older people on their runways and in their movies. Actresses such as Frances McDormand refuse to get plastic surgery noting that her face is a map of her history she would prefer not to erase.
What can we do in our own heart, mind, and community to move in a direction that celebrates rather than denigrates age? A few ideas:
Gratitude List: As with anything, the way we think about something has a powerful effect on how we feel. Make a list of all the things that have gotten better as you have gotten older, or add one gratitude a day to your daily tally of thankfulness.
Mirror Affirmation: When you look in the mirror, instead of grumbling about each new wrinkle, try reframing your thinking. What are some fun, happy memories that you can attribute those laugh lines and crow’s feet to? Think of all the things that make you great right now and tell yourself those things. Celebrate the character, wisdom, intelligence, or humor that you project through your changing look.
Discuss: Talk about these issues and ideas with friends and family of all ages. How much of your youth did you spend worrying about trying to not look older? Perhaps younger relatives could benefit from the wisdom that such worry is a waste of time. Spread the message of positive aging and help them see the beauty of later life. Together, we can turn anti-aging to pro-aging!